Ryan Kattner wants to tell me about the worst year of his life, but he can barely hear my questions over the phone. Stepping out of a bandmate's practice and apartment space in a rough part of Philadelphia, he plugs headphones into his cell phone and starts yelling.
"When you speak, does it sound like a high, pierced ringing sound?" bellows Kattner, who has been practicing at full blast with his band Man Man before going out on tour. "Is that the tone of your voice, or is that just the ringing sound in my ears?" No, I tell him, that's not what my voice sounds like.
Onstage, Kattner goes by Honus Honus ("because Ghostface Killah was taken," he explains), and he sounds like a down-on-his-luck Frank Zappa fronting the Star Wars cantina band. The first CD he ever owned was the La Bamba soundtrack, and you can still hear traces of '50s rock 'n' roll in the Man Man sound, along with a dash of doo-wop. But the band plays it at a frenzied pace, employing sousaphone and synths, marimba and melodica in a famously off-kilter live act that's equal parts punk-rock and circus side show.
I want to ask Kattner about the bridge on "Piranhas Club," a standout track on Man Man's most recent album, Life Fantastic (2011, Anti-). Musically, it's a Ritchie Valens-worthy hip-shaker with catchy keyboards and a chiming guitar lead, but lyrically, it's a little bleak. "The world is a shit show you barely can handle," Kattner barks, "And if you gotta smash some plates to relax/ I say do it, d-d-d-d-d-do it/ And if you gotta crash your car in a lake to feel sane/ I say do it, just do it/ And if you gotta scream until your voice breaks/ I say do it, d-d-d-d-d-do it/ And if you gotta punch your dad in the face/ I say think about it ... Do it."
So what's that all about? This is where Kattner's year of misery comes into play. In 2008, shortly after Man Man released the remarkably poppy album Rabbit Habits, he was down on his luck, to the point where "I kind of lost my mind," he says. Two close friends had recently died, he was effectively homeless and sleeping on people's couches, and then the IRS audited him. "I was like, 'What are they gonna take? Are they gonna take the broken gear and taxidermied animals that I have in storage? I have nothing.'"
Despairing, Kattner called his father to vent, and he got a response that only made him angrier: "Son, you should just write a 'Taxman.'" Kattner knew what his dad meant — he was familiar with the Beatles' 1966 ode to the odious tax collector — but it wasn't what he wanted to hear at the time. "I'm like, 'Oh, Dad, I love you, but please shut up,'" he says.
It wasn't the most practical or dad-like answer to Kattner's problems, but it had plenty of precedent. In 1931, the Irish poet James Stephens published the poem "Strict Care, Strict Joy," a favorite of English teachers and depressed artists (including the Swell Season, who named a 2009 album after the title). It includes these lines: "For, as he meditated misery/ And cared it into song — strict care, strict joy!/ Caring for grief he cared his grief away."
As Kattner meditated misery in 2008, he took his dad's advice, in spite of himself. While working through the audit and sorting through the stuff in his storage unit, he found himself singing the words that would later become the bridge to "Piranhas Club." Later, he added it onto a quirkily heartbroken chorus: "Throw me to piranhas if you won't be with me/ Feed me to koalas if you won't be with me."
Kattner has a more stable living situation now, and he tracked an as-yet-unnamed new album last year with bandmate Pow Pow, hunkering down in the studio once again with producer Mike Mogus (Bright Eyes, Cursive, Tilly and the Wall). The band will be giving the new songs some tour legs when they come to Charleston, but the set list will also include songs off of all four full-length Man Man albums. Here's hoping they play "Piranhas Club," a joyful reminder of hard times past.
"[That year] was pretty terrible, but, you know, I got a cool song out of it," Kattner says. "That song is what I like about making music and listening to music, is the transformative quality of music. I can write a song about some pretty fucked up stuff, but you know, it doesn't vibe like that. It's still a fun-feeling song, and it's a fun song to play. So my smartass dad was right."
James Stephens said the same thing 82 years ago, if not in so many words: "And those sad songs, tho' woe be all the theme,/ Do not make us grieve who read them now —/ Because the poet makes grief beautiful."